Growing up, SY Quraishi, like many people around him, thought Islam was against family planning. “We’d heard this as long as I can remember—that Muslims produce too many children. For want of contrary information, I believed it too,” the former chief election commissioner recalls, speaking about his new book The Population Myth on a Zoom call.
In 1994, the India chapter of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) approached him to write a strategy paper on the issue. It was an unusual request, since Quraishi was neither an Islamic scholar nor a family planning expert. But the officials were insistent. He gave in.
As he started working on the topic, one by one, the myths he’d held about his religion started unravelling. Yes, he found interpretations of the Quran and Hadith suggest reservations against birth control methods like sterilization, but nowhere does Islam prohibit family planning. Yes, the average Muslim family in India had more children than Hindus, but it wasn’t because of an “organized conspiracy” to change the demography of India. Finally, despite the growth rate of the Muslim population being higher than other communities, it was impossible for them to ever eclipse the number of Hindus.
The 73-year-old’s book expands on such findings and more. It’s a work of rigorous scholarship: Quraishi backs up his thesis with population censuses and socio-economic surveys conducted over decades, and also examines the Islamic scriptures that contribute to the narrative around family planning among Muslims.
The book was 25 years in the making, he says. Every time he was close to finalizing the manuscript, he would find a new dataset, one that would need to be analyzed and included so the book remained topical. “But all of [the data] only reinforced my original thesis,” he says. That the belief that rising Muslim population poses threat to India and Indians was not merely ignorant, it was often a deliberate strategy to disturb communal harmony.
Although scholarly in its approach, Quraishi’s book presents his findings in a highly accessible style. Right off the bat, he starts talking about the myths of the rising Muslim population in India, and the reasons behind them.
In 1951, India had a total 361.1 million people. At the time, Hindus were at 84.1% and Muslims 9.8%. As of July 2020, the current total population is estimated to be at 1.38 billion. As per the 2011 Census, Hindus constituted 79.8% and Muslims 14.2% of the population.
Such statistics are often used by the Hindu right to talk about the threats posed by the “changing demographics” of India. Some also cite the high fertility rates among Muslim women – 2.61 births per woman compared to the Hindus’ 2.13, according to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) of 2015-16.
But, as Quraishi writes, the high birth rates are purely because of non-religious factors such as the lack of literacy, income and access to health services. And in each of these metrics, the Muslim community in India fares the worst.
According to the NFHS-4, less than 66.1% of Muslim men and 53.7% of Muslim women have studied up to standard 6 and beyond. For Hindus, the numbers are 77.6% for men and 60.4% for women. The same survey also showed that only 77% of Muslim women – compared to 79% Hindu women – in the age group of 15-49 had received antenatal care from a skilled provider. Additionally, as per the NSS Expenditure Survey 2011-12, around 25% of Muslims falls in the “poor” category, with a monthly per capita household expenditure of ₹833. In comparison, 22% Hindus are counted under the "poor" category.
Despite such differences, the fertility gap between Hindus and Muslims in India is only narrowing with each successive survey, writes Quraishi. “The greatest birth-rate disparities now remain between states and not among religions.”
Also, the high fertility rate means nothing considering the chasm between the two communities in terms of numbers. While there were 30 crore more Hindus than Muslims in 1951, the gap had increased to over 80 crores by 2011. To illustrate this, he presents a mathematical model of the projected rise of Hindu and Muslim population in 2021.
The high fertility rate among Muslims, as cited above, is indeed worrying, Quraishi admits. It puts stress on the community as well as the existing public welfare resources in the country. Yet, no government till date has bothered to address this in a planned manner.
“Although the high fertility rate among Muslims has been referred to in all the policy and plan papers, no efforts especially addressing this issue have ever been made by the government,” he writes. This lack of initiative is often referred to as “Muslim appeasement” on the state’s part. But such a view, says Quraishi, is only part of the popular narrative. “It [the administrative unwillingness to address the high fertility rate] came out of timidity,” he says.
In 1995, when he had started researching the subject, Quraishi wrote to the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare on the outreach they had done towards the Muslim community to dispel misinformation around family planning. “The ministry said the following: ‘Regarding special efforts made to communicate to the Muslim population, it is stated that this Department generally brings out material for the information of common people and not specifically aimed at a particular target group’,” he writes.
“What is politically correct is technically stupid,” Quraishi says. “I have a PhD in social marketing. Social marketing, or marketing, both tell you that ‘people’ are no target audience. There are segments: rich and poor, men and women, young and old. You have to approach them differently. If there’s a pocket of Muslims who say humare majhab ke khilaf hai (this is against our religion), this segment of the audience has to be addressed. No effort was made while the fact that Muslims have the highest birth rate was mentioned in every document.”
At times, he admits, health workers have had difficulties in engaging with the Muslim community members. Rising communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims had led to ghettoization of the latter. There’s little representation of Muslims in the public sector – the Sachar committee report in 2006 had found only 6% police constables, 4.4% workers in the health sector and 6.5% in the transport sector were Muslims – and a growing sense of suspicion and mistrust among the two communities. Often, Hindu staffers are unwilling to go to Muslim residential areas to provide healthcare and birth control services. Conversely, many Muslim women are reluctant to go to health centres, since bulk of the staff are Hindus.
The only solution is to train staffers and build bridges with the community. “If you don’t know anything about my religion, you will not engage. But if you do, you will argue with me: you’re wrong, your religion doesn’t say so.”
For all his optimism, Quraishi doesn’t seem too hopeful about the feasibility of solutions. "When I'd started writing the book, the propaganda was subdued," says Quraishi. "Today, it's at a crescendo." Those spreading Islamophobia are not ignorant, he adds, often they are well-educated and well-informed, they study deep and conduct thorough research. “But they have a mischievous intent – to create hatred for Muslims and bring about social polarization,” he adds. “Even if this book touches a few people who were indeed ignorant, that will be my contribution to national integration.”